By Barry Janoff
March 19, 2013: Between 2009-2012, the New Jersey Nets were 78-172, did not sell out many games at Izod Center and then the Prudential Center, were virtually non-existent on national TV and had soft merchandise sales.
This season, having moved from New Jersey to New York to rebrand as the Brooklyn Nets, the team is in contention for one of the top playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, regularly sells out their new Barclays Center venue, has become part of the rotation during national TV broadcasts and has moved into the top ten among the best selling NBA team merchandise (based on figures from The NBA Store in New York and Store.NBA.com).
Still, the first year in Brooklyn has not all gone smooth. Avery Johnson began the season as head coach and was named the Coach of the Month for the Eastern Conference after going 11-4 in November. But the team went 3-10 in December which, coupled with other mitigating circumstances, led management to replace him with assistant coach Peter J. "P.J." Carlesimo, whose interim tag still remains.
Now, with about five weeks to go until the playoffs, the Nets — led by the core four of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace — are looking to grab first place in the Atlantic Division away from cross-town rival New York Knicks and solidify the team's first post-season appearance since 2007.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the team will go the rest of the campaign under Carlesimo, whose prior NBA experience includes head coach of the Portland Trailblazers (1994-97), Golden State Warriors (1996-2000, which included his infamous 'choking' incident with Latrell Sprewell) and Seattle Sonics/Oklahoma City (2007-09); and as assistant coach to Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs (2002-2007), which included three NBA titles (2003, 2005, 2007).
Carlesimo also served as an assistant coach for USA Basketball for with the Dream Team — led by the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley — which won the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and which in 2010 was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Prior to joining the NBA, Carlesimo carved out a Hall of Fame coaching career in college basketball. That was highlighted by a 12-year tenure (1982-94) as head coach for Seton Hall University in the Big East, during which the Pirates qualified for the NCAA Div. I Men's Basketball Tournament in six of his final seven years and advanced to the NCAA title game in 1989 (losing to Michigan, 90-89), which helped Carlesimo earn NCAA Coach of the Year honors.
This past weekend, just prior to the Nets' current eight-game, 17-day road trip and timed to coincide with the start of the NCAA tournament, Carlesimo was part of a gathering at Clyde Frazier's Wine and Dine restaurant in New York of legendary Big East coaches — which also included Lou Carnesecca (St. John's), John Cheney (Temple) and Bill Raftery (Seton Hall) — held under the auspices of Syracuse, NY-based Aspen Dental. NYSportsJournalism spoke with Carlesimo there about building and marketing the Nets, the push to the playoffs and his future in Brooklyn.
NYSportsJournalism.com: You're a few months into your tenure as interim head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. What are are some of the key things from past position in the NBA and college that you are using to build now?
P.J. Carlesimo: The biggest common denominator is that it's about the players. If you have good players, you're going to be successful. If you don't, you're not. If you don't realize that, then you're in the wrong profession.
NYSJ: How does the NCAA tournament compare to the NBA playoffs?
Carlesimo: This is the time of the year I miss being a college coach. Conference tournaments. The three weeks of the NCAA tournament. It's the best time of the year. It's similar in the NBA. The playoffs are what it's all about. The regular season is a grind. You have to play 82 games. But the playoffs are the real fun. And that was the way it was in college, too. You enjoy the regular season, but you really look forward to the four weeks of conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament.
NYSJ: What is the feeling in and about Brooklyn regarding the franchise's first season there after so many years in New Jersey (and on Long Island before that)?
Carlesimo: If you told me last year that we would be selling tickets the way we are, selling merchandise the way we are, I would have laughed at you. It's amazing. [Team owner] Mikhail Prokhorov, [GM] Billy King, [CEO] Brett Yormark have all done a fantastic job. Rebranding the franchise. The combination of Brooklyn, Barclays Center and the marketing behind it, the franchise was transformed in a couple of months. The way we have been welcomed, and the way the merchandise is selling not just in Brooklyn or New York but all over the country, it's incredible. The way we have been welcomed all over the country and even overseas (where the Nets have played in China, Russia and the U.K.), everybody is wearing and wants Brooklyn Nets jerseys and merchandise. To me, it's an amazing story.
"If you told me last year that we would be selling tickets the way we are, selling merchandise the way we are, I would have laughed at you. It's amazing."
NYSJ: It is the extent to which it has happened or the speed in which it has happened that has you most amazed?
Carlesimo: I thought maybe this would happen over the course of a few years. To do what we have do in a year, less than a year because we were still playing in New Jersey in April, that's what has amazed me.
NYSJ: You're at a point in the NBA schedule where teams are fighting for playoff positions but everybody has key players injured, everybody is banged up. What is your strategy between now and the end of the season and then going into the playoffs?
Carlesimo: Right now, we're second in the [Atlantic] division behind the Knicks, in the fourth seed overall in the East, where you want to finish [or higher] to get that home court advantage. Indiana [Pacers] and Boston [Celtics] are right there with us behind Miami [Heat]. We're all looking at the same thing. Five weeks from now the playoffs start. The No. 1 priority for everyone is to be healthy when the playoffs start. But at the same time you have to keep winning games. That determines your match-ups. That determines whether or not you get home-court advantage. It's always been said that the NBA regular season is a marathon. We're getting near the end right now, we are in the last stretches. But you have to be healthy and you have to keep winning games or we're going to have a real tough match-up.
NYSJ: What's you're overall assessment of the level of play in the NBA?
Carlesimo: Most of the guys in the NBA don't get enough credit. They play at a very high level. The few knuckleheads do something and they all the press. Most NBA guys understand. They get paid a lot of money to play basketball. It's the NBA, it's basketball at a high level, but it's also entertainment. TV, marketing drives so much of it. The game has been changing for the the offense. They want to see a lot of points scored. If you touch a guy now you get called for a foul. But the game is growing. I'm enjoying it.
NYSJ: There was a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic earlier this month (March 12) where Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn used the 'hack-a-Shaq' on Dwight Howard beginning in the second quarter, and Howard went to the free throw line 39 times (tying his own NBA record), making 25. Even though the Lakers won 106-97, is that something that should be addressed by the NBA?
Carlesimo: [Let's out a groan.] It doesn't. It doesn't happen enough to be a concern. It's part of the game. Unfortunately, some of the guys you do that to are guys you can't stop. If you wait until he gets the call, he's probably going to score if he's inside and close to the basket. Their strategy was to foul him away from the basket when he didn't have the ball to force him to make his free throws. Howard this season has not been making a lot of his free throws. That game, he did. It's within the rules, though it's probably not in the spirit of the game. Late in the game, coaches are going to do what they have to do to win the game.
NYSJ: Do people remember that you were on the coaching staff of the 1992 Dream Team?
Carlesimo: [Laughs]. I have to tell you, I don't get enough credit for the success of that team. We were in Monte Carlo for a week to train before going to Barcelona. I was in charge of golf tee times and making dinner reservations. That was a lot of pressure. I had to stay with Charles Barkley when he went out, and that was a lot of pressure because they were all like rock stars at the time. Seriously, that team had 11 players who went to the Hall of Fame. I don't know that you will ever see a team like that again.
NYSJ: Regarding the Nets, how important has team ownership been to the success on the court as well as off of it?
Carlesimo: Listen, I can't say enough good things about Mikhail Prokhorov and his group and how supportive he's been in building the roster, giving us the facilities we need to train and play at a high NBA level, helping to get the word out about the team and helping us work with the community to enable us to build relationships that will last a long time. Every owner wants to win [but] not every owner is willing to back that up with financial support. When you look at where we've come just since last season — the players, the marketing, a new arena — you can see that Mikhail is willing to do what it takes.
NYSJ: Do you get to hang out with [minority investor] Jay-Z and Beyoncé?
Carlesimo: [Laughs.] I'm too busy for that. And they have a couple of other commitments. We talk when they attend games or team functions. They are great when it comes to supporting the team and talking about the future of the Nets in Brooklyn. Jay-Z was a big part of the marketing, coming up with the color schemes, getting the Nets into the community. The combination of Mikhail, Brett Yormark, Billy King, Jay-Z, the people who are making the decisions for the franchise are very smart. They are making a lot of good decisions. I just hope it continues.
"At this point we just have to wait and see what happens. It's not something you have any control over. If you win enough games then you get another chance."
NYSJ: The ultimate decision comes from team ownership, but would you like the 'interim' be dropped from your title and to be named head coach for 2013-14 and beyond?
Carlesimo: You never want to get a job the way it happened [with Johnson getting fired]. But, of course, I would like this to extend [beyond this season]. At this point we just have to wait and see what happens. Hopefully, it will. But it's not something you have any control over. If you win enough games then you get another chance.